Posted on Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 by Russ Fischer
There’s no one film that launched Denzel Washington as a star. Rather, a collection of late ’80s and early ’90s performances, culminating in the drama/thriller combo of Philadelphia and Crimson Tide, cemented his leading man status. But there is one picture that tends to stand above most of Washington’s work, by virtue of the ferocity he brought to the role. Training Day, released in 2001, saw director Antoine Fuqua guiding Washington to one of his most striking performances, and to his second Oscar win.
Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington have teamed up again for The Equalizer. While the film is based on the concept created for an early ’80s TV show starring Edward Woodward, in which a former special ops guy uses his skill set to help the needy, the film is something a bit different. This is, as Fuqua explains, meant to be a bit like a European thriller, and a bit like a Western. It looks a bit more spare than your typical studio action picture. We visited the Boston-area set of the film, and spoke to Fuqua about the project.
Note: This interview was conducted in August 2013, with a handful of journalists on the set of The Equalizer.
You made Olympus Has Fallen, which competed Sony’s film White House Down, made by Roland Emmerich. Was there any issue, like Sony saying the producers couldn’t hire you for this?
Oh (laughter), not really. I mean, no. I was more nervous, because when I signed on with Amy and everything, I thought [there might be some resistance], but my film wasn’t out yet. No, theirs wasn’t out yet, mine had come out. They had a meeting and Adele called about doing this film, so it was fine. I didn’t know what would have happened if that film would have came out first. (laughter) So, no, it’s just business. It’s just business.
Can you give us your view of this film? We got the understanding there was a lot of character, a lot of dialogue, but then some really serious action.
Oh yeah, intense action. When Jason and Todd and those guys asked for my take on it, my feeling was that it was more of a European-style film, a bit of a throwback to the 70’s where characters are allowed to breathe a little bit more. It takes its time and the heroes can be a little more interesting, and unexpected. I saw it as a struggle. Even the Westerns that I grew up with, the Sergio Leone [films] and all that, there was always a sort of anti-hero, a guy reluctant to pick up the gun again because he wants to help other people. And he does, he uses his skills for that. I saw it as that kind of film because I’m a contemporary filmmaker trying to find my own take on the movie. Nowadays there are more European films I find interesting. So I’m going to take that approach with this film, but a little bit of a throwback.
Your description even makes Olympus Has Fallen sound like it was an urban Western.
You could call it that, I guess, you could certainly call it that. A lot of these types of films are, really, if you get down to the core. Most suspense thrillers in this genre, the Western is sort of the birth of it all.
It’s always the outsider hero who stands up for society even though he’s not really a part of it.
One hundred percent. I mean, many of the Sergio Leone movies were with Clint Eastwood, and that’s what it is. He’s the hero riding into town, he’s the gunslinger. Shane – the same thing, he didn’t want to do it anymore, he wanted to live a different life but part of who you are sort of haunts you and you can’t run away from evil and if you have special skills, and most people are mistreated, which is unfortunately in our world, we always need an equalizer, that type of character to come to our rescue. In movies you get to do that.
Sometimes with the vigilante justice movie he has to also tangle with police, which are traditional or security people. Is there going to be any of that in this?
No, not really. In this particular film, without giving anything away, he deals with them, but they’re not always good guys these days, unfortunately. He deals with those characters too, characters that are similar to Alonzo, in Training Day, he has to deal with those guys.
Like Olympus Has Fallen, this is said to be a hard “R” film. What compels you to play in that area? And are there certain action set pieces that really push what we get to see into R territory?
Again, I’m a product of older filmmakers I guess, from the past where you get to make movies, and scenes are what they are. You know if you think about Scorsese back in the day when he was making Taxi Driver, or Coppola, Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet… they’re making films where you witness violence in a real way. And sometimes violence in a very real way is much faster and more impactful because it feels real and you’re watching it happen and watching your star do these things. So it’s not like he’s doing superhero moves.
The violence you witness is Denzel doing it. We’re taking some visual effects and doing some things. You see something happen it’s happening in front of you as opposed to cutting away and doing a bunch of tricks. It’s in front of you. So it’s hard not to make it a hard “R” if you see a guy get punched and teeth wind up in someone’s knuckles, you know what I mean? I don’t think you can get away with a PG. (laughter) Some other things I can tell you, you’ll never look at corkscrews again. (laughter) I’ll tell you that. It’s hardcore. There’s some stuff that even I go, “wow, okay”. (laughter) We’ll see what happens.
Todd [Black, producer] said he loved the title and the concept, but said that’s all that you borrowed from the original series. Are you familiar with the original series, and if so was there anything else you wanted to bring forward?
The original is certainly the jump-off. I grew up around that era so I watched all those shows. The basic concept is there, it’s just a different movie. Totally different actors, different filmmakers, different script, but same concept.
Your protagonist has OCD, which is not a character trait that you necessarily associate with Denzel. How have you been managing that aspect of the character and making sure that it’s very realistically portrayed?
We studied a lot of books and things like that. Denzel has a personal experience with it. Not himself, that’s his business-I won’t get into that, but he knows a lot about it as well. So, we took some real life experiences that we both [have]. I’ve been told that I have OCD. I didn’t think so, lately they’ve told me I have OCD, I don’t know. We discovered is a lot of different things — it’s not just washing your hands, it’s whatever you’re obsessed with. It can be just the way you hold a pen, and you always have to have it a certain way or you have to eat your food, it depends.
It’s something that I thought was really interesting for a character, because sometimes it’s used in a film where it is OCD, and sometimes it’s strategic. So if you see someone lying out knives and forks consistently, but then one day those knives and forks become weapons, you’re not sure if he does that as a warrior, that’s just his thing, he gets ready for war all the time or is it really OCD? So it was one of those things that when we talked about it I thought, well, that’s an interesting character. I don’t think I’ve seen that sort of character in a long time in this genre. Because, again, there was a time when you could have quirky, strange characters that you grew to love, you didn’t quite understand, and then they became almost cardboard cutouts for awhile. You kind of know the guy, what his deal is – this guy’s hard to figure out. He has some strange habits, but, you learn to love him and you discover more about him, where it comes from.
So the OCD is something we’re going to see right from the beginning of the film and it runs throughout?
Yep. You’ll see a consistent thing, like the tea, the tea bags you saw there — did you see the cafeteria? I mean the diner? You’ll see in the movie he constantly does that-he only drinks his tea a certain way, brings his own tea bags, the guy pours hot water, it’s like a consistency throughout the film, but he never breaks his habits. I mean, to a point, where he has to.
Is that military at all?
We don’t say. He’s part of a discovery. He’s part of some organization that, he comes out of an organization somewhere. We don’t say the CIA, or…
Having done Training Day, do you and Denzel understand each other better during the day to day work?
Absolutely, absolutely. We’re very good friends, we have a very honest relationship. He keeps me honest, I keep him honest. He’s an incredible actor and when you have an actor like Denzel action becomes drama. So it’s not just action anymore. Part of what I discovered in Training Day and things like that, you could take an action scene and create great drama as if it was a dialogue scene, which is part of what you’ll see. So that’s part of the relationship, as a rhythm. So I can read something on the page that sounds like an action beat and I know, with Denzel, I know there’s acting within all that. It’s not just going to be beating people up, there’s more to it than that.
Are you viewing this as a franchise?
Ah, you know, I would be lying to you if I said I wouldn’t love for it to become a franchise, I would love for it to become a hit and all that great stuff. Who knows-you just make the best movie you can make, you know it’s like, eat the whole thing, one piece at a time. And then, we’ll see what happens, I would love for it to be.
Are there any challenges working with someone that you’re close with?
It’s not harder than it should be, no. We’re about the business, we’re about the work. It’s all about the work, always. We have fun and laugh and there’re days that are more intense than others, but we’re there to make it better. He’s always going to try and make it better, I’m always going to try and make it better. So you accept anything, you accept whatever it takes to get it up on the screen and make it worthy.
The Equalizer opens on September 26. We’ll have more from the set shortly.